American Culture

Horror in Aurora: Common decency vs. the media's death paparazzi

CandleLike millions of other Americans I first heard about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado Friday morning. It was a sobering moment in the middle of my morning at work. Without more facts at my disposal, all I could do was think about the survivors and their families, even the family of the suspect in custody. I thought of the witnesses. I thought of the witnesses’ confidants. I thought of the employees. I thought of the first responders. I thought of people I know who may have been in the area. I thought of people that people I know may know who may have been there. When something horrible like this happens, the list of people to think of seems nearly infinite. This is the kind of event that leaves permanent scars on so many in so many ways. A survivor of my own traumas and intimate of other survivors, I could even then only guess at the pain and suffering felt by all involved. Work being work, however, I didn’t have the first-world luxury of distant rubbernecking and so didn’t hear any more of the massacre until later in the day.

Once the day was done, however, and I could settle in for the evening, I detected a disturbing and entirely unsurprising trend. While people are suffering, countless others are already using the bodies for bully pulpits and cash cows.

First, by way of email, I heard about Congressman Gohmert’s unseemly diarrhea of the mouth. There’s probably much more to be said about the quality of his comments, but this is neither the place nor time.

Then I heard that President Obama’s campaign was pulling its contrast advertising  (a truly revolting euphemism if ever I heard one) attack ads. By the time I located the linked resource for that tidbit, the Romney campaign had already announced it was pulling all ads and the Obama campaign had “clarified” that it was pulling all, not just the attack ads. How nice for both of them.

Then I heard that the media (surprise!) was flooding into Aurora.  Because what the survivors really need is a swarm of reporters and support staff, right?

My first impulse, as noted above, was to feel for all directly and immediately concerned with the attack. My impulse in the evening was to rail. I tried fitfully, and finally just couldn’t do it. Instead, I posted to my Facebook page,

Re: Aurora, a) I’m beyond relieved that nobody I know and (so far as I know), nobody people I know know were present and/or injured. b) My thoughts go out to the victims, their families, and the family of the shooter. This is what tragedy requires. c) People who are politicizing the matter can choke on a bag of dicks.

Time has passed. The all-too-predictable politicizing has been running roughshod over the American landscape for four days now. Politicizing has been politicized. Not politicizing has been politicized. Politicizing has been unpoliticized. The media had its macabre festival all weekend. President Obama visited with families, Romney said he did the right thing in doing so, and otherwise their campaigns kept up the barrage of “contrast advertising.” Pundits on both sides of the imaginary aisle have predictably launched into the second amendment/gun control debate. In other news, other things happened, but nothing so important as whether the NCAA did or did not do enough of the right thing or wrong thing.

Well, since the question, “too soon?” seems to have been more than adequately answered, indulge me, if you will.

My thoughts are indeed with the victims’ families and with all those deeply, personally wounded by this tragedy. But you know what? There’s nothing special about these people or, dare I say it, their deceased loved ones, other than that they won one of the worst possible lotteries to win. Yet, America suddenly wakes up, rears its collective weepy head, and pours out its deepest sympathies and condolences. The president drops all his other executive responsibilities for a photo op. Both campaigns drop their obviously unseemly attacks in Colorado, but only there. The media goes into a feeding frenzy, as though we’re truly to believe it’s about the victims and about the journalism and not about ratings and advertising revenues (as seen from the top of our six-faced media monolith.

Why? Where was the media frenzy and the presidential visit for the approximately 100 victims who die each year in Arizona alone…from domestic violence?  What about the grieving in Milwaukee?  Families who grieve for drunk driving fatalities?

This might seem the height of tastelessness, but it’s a serious question, one I think deserves to be considered. What makes one death, ten deaths, a hundred deaths, more or less tragic and worthy of becoming the next national spectacle?

What makes some victims more or less special and deserving of the massive outpouring of sympathy, politics and money? Honestly, seriously, if the press hadn’t made such a big deal of the shooting, would you have cared? How much? Because it was Aurora? Colorado? A theater? Because they were watching Batman? Because of the attack’s apparent randomness? It’s senselessness? Because Holmes is either clearly insane, evil, or both?

Where’s the grief, the outrage, the will to address all of the senseless death we experience, day in, day out? Making this one’s token moment of giving a shit or a point of departure for pet political or religious issues just makes this tragedy a horrible backdrop for yet another cheap, tawdry display of mass superficiality.

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Image credit: Photograph by KOMUnews, licensed under Creative Commons.

1 reply »

  1. Your question, “What makes one death, ten deaths, a hundred deaths, more or less tragic and worthy of becoming the next national spectacle?” is gutsy one to ask and even more difficult to answer. Let me try it from a newsguy’s perspective.

    I think the quick answer to your question is that an event like this is an oddity. The unusual circumstances, the heinous nature of the crime, the multiple victims don’t happen often (fortunately). That makes it nationwide news. I’m not trying to be snarky here, but there’s the example of a thousand safe airliner flights a day not being news, but one crash is.

    But people who use this story for any kind of political or media advantage should be shamed and shunned. The “facts,” such as they are, will unfold over the next weeks and months. Pundits will speculate about why this guy snapped, as if such aberrant behavior can be rationalized. Politicians like the one whose story you linked to should be run out of office. These people are both opportunistic and clueless, and we need to call them on that.

    The media’s job is to report on what is already known or can be reported without making the story seem like a death circus. For instance, I’d like to know what was in the minds of the first responders as they entered the theater. I’d find someone who was in the theater and who felt like telling me her or his story. I’d like to know how the local hospital’s emergency room/trauma center handled the victims: Did they have a system that worked, or were they virtually dysfunctional? Those stories might lead to change, to progress, to a safer society. But they take time and work. Neither of those qualities is valued in our news-on-demand society.

    Sometimes, the families of victims *want* to talk to the media. I can’t tell you how many stories I wrote after interviewing people who were bereaved for one reason or another. Some people are somewhat comforted to know that their loved ones will be remembered, that their stories will be captured for posterity, in spite of their unhappy departures.

    Unfortunately, our culture of news on demand means some irresponsible (at best) reporting will be broadcast and printed. People will be assigned to cover this story who don’t know the first thing about working at a crime scene. Collectively, the media will not smother themselves in glory.

    Back to your question about every death being a tragedy: You’re right beyond questioning. Any death is news to someone, no matter where it occurs. Yet the media aren’t very good at examining questions like how many people die in Arizona each year because of domestic violence. Those are simply statistics. But let some deranged doctor shoot his lover a hospital stairwell in a metropolitan area, and the news helicopters are flopping above the scene like metal vultures.